Many people have asked: why Russia? The original answer is somewhat egocentric. When I selected the trip, I wanted something so exotic, so amazing that it would provide that wow factor from everyone. As I thought more about it, though, I realized the huge implications of my visit to Russia. This country has been through so much. Positioned precariously between Europe and Asia, Russia blends elements of both in a delicate, love/hate relationship; its history shaped by the pulls between East and West.
However, recent history provides the most interesting points. Just 15 years ago, Russia was controlled by the infamous Soviet Union--to some saviors, to others unquestionable enemies. All over Russia, dilapidated buildings, enduring monuments, and ongoing protests give glimpses of Soviet influence even now. Certainly, no other force has done so much to shape the events of the past century than the USSR.
I find it very sad. The people of Russia still feel great pride for their efforts to transform society using communist ideals; many still value Soviet ideals and reject "corrupt" western influences. However, capitalism has arrived. Clear signs of American influence show up everywhere: malls, American chains like Ikea, English music and culture, gigantic billboards covering whole apartments.
While Russian capitalism isn't as omnipresent as American capitalism, it is growing rapidly. You can see it in the dichotomy between Russian-style shops and Western-style shops. Western shops feature expensive, homogeneous goods in hermetically sealed packages while Russian shops serve cheaper goods of greater variety and varying quality. It could be argued that Western shops symbolize progress, but I disagree. I don't want franchised shops with quality controlled goods and regulated floor plans. I want unique goods and the experience of interacting with new people and places.
While Russia shows signs of Americanization, it's unlikely they will be subverted by American enterprise. Russians share fierce national pride and ingenuity. They will carve out their own path.